HER SMELL (2019)

Review by LL Soares

Some movies, you just take it for granted, should be a great time. I’m a big fan of actress Elizabeth Moss. You might know her from the TV shows THE WEST WING, where she played Zoey Bartlet from 1999-2006; MAD MEN, where she played Peggy Olson from 2007 – 2015; and THE HANDMAID’S TALE, which she is currently starring in AS Offred/June. She’s also a movie star, having appeared in movies like Jordon Peele’s US (2019), HIGH-RISE (2015), GET HIM TO THE GREEK (2010), and the fascinating THE ONE I LOVE (2014). She’s the kind of actress who leaves a big impression, and it’s easy to believe that you’ll love just about anything you see her in.

I’m also heavily into music, especially punk rock, and Moss plays a punk singer in her new movie HER SMELL. One modeled after singers like Courtney Love and Patti Smith.

Elizabeth Moss as an out-of-control singer in an all-girl punk rock band? It should be a home run, right? Strangely, it’s not.

HER SMELL has Moss playing Becky Something, the lead singer and guitarist of the band Something She. Her band mates are drummer Ali van der Wolff (Gayle Rankin, also in the Netflix series GLOW and the movie THE GREATEST SHOWMAN, 2017) and Marielle Hell (Agyness Deyn, CLASH OF THE TITANS, 2010) on bass. Becky has a daughter who she brings on tour with her sometimes (at first, I thought she was Ali’s daughter) named Tama. Her entourage (some willing, some not) includes her “shaman” Ya-ema (Eka Darville, JESSICA JONES), who follows her around and burns candles, her always-frustrated manager Howard (Eric Stoltz, MASK , 1985 and PULP FICTION, 1994), her mother Ania (Virginia Madsen, CANDYMAN, 1992, and SIDEWAYS, 2004 ), and her husband Danny (Dan Stevens, of the shows DOWNTON ABBY and LEGION, and the movies THE GUEST, 2014, AND APOSTLE, 2018) a radio disc jockey who keeps bringing divorce papers with him that Becky won’t look at, much less sign.

The movie opens with Something She performing (just one song!) and then leaving and going backstage, in one long, rambling scene where Tama gets passed from person to person, and Becky whines a lot. In fact, whining seems to be Becky’s superpower. For a singer with adoring fans (not sure how that happened!), she’s very insecure (of course, nothing new) and consults with her shaman on every decision she makes (mostly bad ones), as he follows her around constantly, and she bitches at everyone about how they’ve let her down. She’s also heavily into alcohol and drugs (of course). Poor Dan just wants to get the hell away from her, but he’s linked to her because of Tama.

Next, we go to a recording studio, where Becky won’t leave, even though their time is up, and no one has the guts to kick her out (why not just call the cops? I’m sure she’d love the publicity). Along comes The Akergirls, a young band that obviously reminds Becky a lot of her own band when they were just starting out. The Akergirls consist of Roxie Rotten (Ashley Benson of PRETTY LITTLE LIARS and SPRING BREAKERS, 2012), Dottie O.Z. (Dylan Gelula, CHASING LIFE, 2014-2015) and drummer Crassie Cassie (model and actress Cara Delevigne, who always gives a fun performance, and who you may recognize from PAPER TOWNS, 2014, VALERIAN AND THE CITY OF A THOUSAND PLANETS, 2017, and SUICIDE SQUAD, 2016). They’re the new discoveries of Howard, who is trying to get their debut album recorded, because it’s clear that he’s not making much money off Becky anymore and he desperately needs a hit. The new band idolizes Something She, especially Becky, and feel honored just to be in the same studio with them. When Becky’s bandmates take off, completely fed up with her behavior, Becky uses the new girls’ adulation to manipulate them into being her new backup band in the studio, much to Howard’s chagrin (now she definitely won’t be leaving anytime soon).

Later on, at a big gig where the Akergirls are opening for Something She, Becky loses her shit completely and makes a scene, which ends up with her running out on stage, bloody and dazed. This will lead to a hiatus, where Becky tries to get her act together and make a comeback.

The big meltdown includes Becky showing up two hours late, with an impromptu camera crew in tow, and includes more whining until she breaks a bottle and cuts herself and Ali. The bottle cutting seems to pop up because up until then Becky is just annoying as hell, and it’s like the filmmaker suddenly thought, “Hey, I have to actually give her an edge.” The movie is written and directed by Alex Ross Perry, who also gave us LISTEN UP PHILIP (2015) and QUEEN OF EARTH (2015). Oddly enough, he was also one of the writers of the screenplay for the recent Disney film CHRISTOPHER ROBIN (2018).

There are things I liked about HER SMELL, mostly the supporting roles by the members of Becky’s band (Rankin and Deyn are terrific), and The Akergirls. Dan Stevens, always a good actor, is pretty much wasted here as the sad ex who wants to be free from Becky’s psychodrama, but can’t get away.

Moss, who is normally terrific, is mostly irritating here, which is what she’s supposed to be, I guess. But the movie is an endurance test that never really ever making it worth our while. It just doesn’t amount to anything. We’ve seen this kind of movie too many times before: the out-of-control rock star whose life spirals out of control. (Hell, we just saw it in Bradley Cooper’s A STAR IS BORN last year). The thing is, Moss’s Becky offers absolutely nothing new to the equation. She’s not different or interesting in her “out of control” behavior (which is more aggravating than anarchic). Hell, even her band’s songs are kind of boring (and definitely forgettable). I can’t really blame Moss for this. She clearly gives the role her all, in a performance that has been labeled “fearless” by some critics.

My problem here is with Perry’s script, which never once convinces me that Becky Something is someone I should care about. She’s not a profound musician, she’s not a fascinating human being, she’s just an annoyance that people put up with only because they either need her for some reason (employment, motherhood) or are somehow misguided enough to be her fans. If her performances were truly incendiary, then I could see the appeal. But they’re not. Moss tries like hell to make this woman real, but I had a hard time accepting her as a believable character. Whether in total chaos mode or, later on, sober and seemingly reflective, she just never really seems “genuine.” She seems more like a rock star caricature than a true source of drama.

Amber Heard (of DRIVE ANGRY, 2011, and Mera in AQUAMAN, 2018) also appears as Zelda, a bigger star who knew Becky back when they were both starting out, and who tries to help her out. Becky treats her like a hanger-on, and resents any help that’s offered, even though it’s clear Zelda is successful and talented, and frankly, she doesn’t have to waste her time hanging around Becky’s “I’m gonna fall apart all the time” shtick. I’m sure she has better things to do.

So did I.

In something like A STAR IS BORN, Cooper and Lady Gaga were convincing as rock stars, her on the way up, him spiraling down. Not once did I find Becky Something convincing. And that’s really too bad, considering the talent involved in this movie.

I give it two knives.

(c) Copyright 2019 by LL Soares

LL Soares gives HER SMELL ~ 2 knives



US (2019)

Review by LL Soares

Like a lot of people, I loved Jordan Peele’s directorial debut, GET OUT (2017), and it’s amazing how much that movie has already become part of the cultural landscape. The spoon clinking on the sides of that teacup. The Sunken Place. The movie has resonated and become part of pop culture. So, no matter what his next movie was, it was going to be hard to top the success of GET OUT.

US (which Peele wrote and directed, as he did with GET OUT) is interesting in that it’s a very different kind of story. It’s still a horror movie, and personally I’m happy to see that he’s continuing to work in the genre. But where GET OUT was more of a straightforward narrative, going from Point A to Point B, US is something else. Not everything will be answered this time to everyone’s satisfaction. That said, I enjoyed it a lot.

Like GET OUT and its creepy opening scene of Lakeith Stanfield getting abducted while walking around an upper-class white neighborhood, US also start out ominously, showing us a family at a boardwalk amusement park in 1986. While Mom (Anna Diop, currently playing Starfire in the DC Comics series TITANS) goes to the bathroom and Dad (Yahya Abdul-Manteen II, who most recently played Black Manta in AQUAMAN) is occupied playing “Whack-a-Mole,” their young daughter wanders off the boardwalk and into a funhouse on the beach. Inside the hall of mirrors, the girl, named Adelaide (Madison Curry) finds herself alone and lost when the lights go out. While trying to find an exit, she bumps into another little girl who looks like her.

We then move to present day, where the grown Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o of 12 YEARS A SLAVE, 2013, and BLACK PANTHER, 2018) is on her way to Santa Cruz with her family, to visit her husband Gabe’s (Winston Duke, also in BLACK PANTHER and AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR, 2018) old stomping grounds. The two also have a daughter, Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and a son, Jason (Evan Alex). They are staying at a cabin which belongs to Gabe’s family, and he wants to go to the beach to hang out with his old friend Josh Tyler (Tim Heidecker of the Adult Swim series TIM AND ERIC AWESOME SHOW, GREAT JOB, and the movie THE COMEDY, 2012) his wife Kitty (Elizabeth Moss of MAD MEN and the Hulu series THE HANDMAID’S TALE), and their twin teenage daughters, Becca and Lindsey (Cali and Noelle Sheldon). Adelaide clearly does not want to go to the beach, but Gabe talks her into it. Before they leave, Gabe shows off that he got a speedboat, which he rides around in the lake behind the cabin.

After hanging out with Josh and Kitty, who mostly just drink on the beach, the family heads back to the cabin, and then things start getting weird.

It’s not long until they notice what looks like another family standing at the end of their driveway. Two adults and two kids are just standing there, holding hands and making a human chain (like the “Hands Across America” commercial we see in the first part of the film). Gabe tries to intimidate them into leaving, but they don’t move. In fact, when they do move, they become downright hostile, charging the house. Adelaide and her family try to keep them out, but they break in, and immediately take over as the aggressors here. Then we notice something weird. The intruders look just like the members of Adelaide’s family (and they’re led by a woman who looks just like her). Adelaide’s doppelganger (named Red in the credits) is the only one who can speak, in a wheezy rasp. The rest of Red’s family can only communicate in grunts.

Each doppleganger goes after their corresponding family member, leaving Red and Adelaide alone in the living room. And then the family begins what becomes a fight for their lives.

Why do these strangers look just like Adelaide and her family? What do they want? Where did they come from? Well, I don’t really want to go into too much detail about these things, because US is full of narrative twists and turns. The movie does a good job of building suspense throughout and maintaining a tone of dread.

There are also references to other movies tucked into the script, mostly genre flicks from the 80s, from the Santa Cruz Boardwalk (previously seen in THE LOST BOYS, 1987) to THE SHINING (1980, like those twin daughters of the Tylers), to C.H.U.D. (1984) and Michael Haneke’s FUNNY GAMES (1997).

Some people have been finding the final third of the film to be disappointing and/or confusing, which makes things difficult here, because I really don’t want to give too much away. But I dug the movie throughout. I thought the acting was terrific (especially Lupita Nyong’o, who is pretty much the star of the film) and the suspense consistently engaging. There’s also a great score by Michael Abels and strong cinematography by Mike Gioulakis.

It deals with bigger themes than GET OUT, and isn’t as clear-cut as that film. Despite that, I really enjoyed its ambition and imagery, and thought US was a strong follow-up to Peele’s debut.

Not everything in US works, but enough does to make it a thrilling ride. I give it three and a half knives.

© Copyright 2019 by LL Soares


LL Soares gives US — three and a half knives!